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On Oscar night, can anything beat 'King's Speech'?

"The King's Speech" appears to be the front-runner in this year's Oscar best-picture race. But the ballots aren't in yet, and a new voting system could shake things up.
/ Source: The New York Times

It is the king’s to lose.

Dual victories by “The King’s Speech” at a pair of closely watched awards ceremonies over the weekend have put the film on track to win a best picture Oscar, unless the vagaries of a new Hollywood math or simmering questions about the movie’s chief subject, King George VI, get in the way.

On Sunday night the movie, about a stammering British monarch and his rhetorical struggle with the Nazis, won the ensemble cast award from the Screen Actors Guild, as well as an individual award for its star, Colin Firth. The night before, the film picked up a prize for its director, Tom Hooper, from the Directors Guild of America.

The movie had already been named the year’s outstanding film by the Producers Guild of America, and picked up 12 Oscar nominations last week, to lead a field that includes “True Grit,” “The Fighter” and “The Social Network,” among others.

Within Hollywood, the alignment of guild awards points to enormous good will for “The King’s Speech,” a British-made film that is distributed in the United States by the Weinstein Company.

While the film is small, with a budget estimated at only about $15 million, and its performance at the box office is still relatively modest — it reached $72 million over the weekend, after more than two months in theaters — it has so far gone down like a plateful of comfort food.

Its themes are familiar (friendship and the overcoming of personal demons). Its story is uplifting. (All turns out well.) And its anti-Nazi stance is a draw. (Oscar voters have been perennially attracted to films like “Hope and Glory,” “The English Patient,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Schindler’s List” and “The Reader.”)

But the Oscar ballots are not in the mail yet. Those will be dispatched to the 5,755 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with camera-ready publicity flourish at the academy’s Beverly Hills headquarters at 10 a.m. on Wednesday.

And before those ballots come due on Feb. 22, an army of competing Oscar strategists will be probing for any sign that “The King’s Speech” can be beaten.

In the last week or two a flurry of news reports and Internet banter have chewed over questions about the real King George, particularly whether he was actually less than stalwart in his opposition to the Third Reich.

On Jan. 24, for instance, Christopher Hitchens wrote on that the king was devoted to Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement, and “even after the Nazi armies had struck deep north into Scandinavia and clear across the low countries to France, did not wish to accept Chamberlain’s resignation.”

So far, there has been no sign that any stain on the real George has tainted the more heroic portrayal by Mr. Firth, who on Sunday night was received royally.

Nor is it clear that any competitor has circulated such reports, in possible violation of an academy rule that forbids “casting a negative or derogatory light on a competing film.” A year ago something like that happened when Nicolas Chartier, a producer of “The Hurt Locker,” sent academy voters an e-mail urging votes for his movie over “Avatar,” then seen as its main competitor. Mr. Chartier was banned from the awards ceremony as punishment, but his film won the best picture Oscar anyway.

That doesn’t mean that there haven’t been some not-so-subtle jabs thrown around. On Friday the cover of Daily Variety carried an advertisement boldly proclaiming Paramount’s “True Grit,” with its 10 Oscar nominations, to be the “most honored American movie” of the year — lest anyone forget that a vote for “The King’s Speech” is a vote to send the top Oscar offshore.

The Weinstein Company has had a battery of publicists poised to respond to any negativity with countermeasures that point to the film’s authenticity and the king’s integrity.

“We’re obviously prepared,” said David Glasser, the Weinstein Company’s chief operating officer. “A lot of time and planning went into writing the screenplay and making the movie, to ensure the accuracy of this picture,” Mr. Glasser said.

And it is lost on few here that a primary competitor, “The Social Network,” has also faced questions about the veracity of its portrayal of the Facebook entrepreneur Mark Zuckerberg, so any showdown between that film and “The King’s Speech” over matters of fact and fiction might end in a draw.

(The news media and some Oscar voters are almost certain to be on hand at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles on Feb. 9, when the university’s film school sponsors a discussion with Todd Lieberman, a producer of the fact-based movie “The Fighter,” and others, over “artistic license and the process of telling a true story on screen.”)

Early in the awards season “The Social Network,” which was released on Oct. 1, ran strong with the critics and picked up a string of awards, including a top prize from the National Board of Review and a Golden Globe for best drama. But none of those honors came from groups heavy with Oscar voters, as are the Hollywood guilds, which are clearly leaning toward “The King’s Speech.”

In recent history no film has swept the top awards from the directors guild, the producers guild and the actors guild and then failed to win the best picture Oscar. “No Country for Old Men” (2008) and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” (2004) each won the top prize on Oscar night after winning at all three guilds.

Still, a possible threat may come from a relatively new Oscar voting system in the best picture category. Publicists who represent films other than “The King’s Speech” — speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid conflict with the rules — point out that preferential balloting that was put in place in 2009, when the academy doubled its field of best picture nominees to 10, means that the movie with the largest number of first-place votes, at least in theory, can lose to a film with a strong second-place showing.

That would happen if the first-place votes were actually spread among a relatively large number of favorites, as may happen this year, which finds at least four films running just behind “The King’s Speech,” with a strong cluster of nominations in major categories. One such film, “The Fighter,” has three nominations in the supporting actor categories, for instance, along with its best director and best picture nominations.

So the key to winning this year may lie in being everybody’s second choice. Or so goes the theory among those who are not backing “The King’s Speech,” which, so far, is a clear No. 1.

This story, "Awards for 'King's Speech' may be harbingers of Oscar glory," originally appeared in The New York Times.